Geopolitics: (Of) the Final Frontier

Geopolitics: (Of) the Final Frontier

The Space Force is really happening. President Trump recently signed a directive creating a new US Air Force unit dedicated to space defense. It's not quite the independent, sixth military branch Trump once touted, but its creation illustrates just how much the competition to dominate space is heating up.


With the US, China, Russia, and other aspiring space powers all vying for strategic and commercial control, space today is a whole lot like the sea was 400 years ago: a vast new frontier of competition with lots of opportunity and huge unknowns.

Here's a quick rundown of the big issues that governments are grappling with on the ethereal plane:

Military competition: Much of America's military dominance on earth relies on objects in orbit. Satellite-based communications, navigation, and early warning systems all help to defend the US homeland and project power around the world. But China and Russia are now challenging America's control in low earth orbit and beyond, with weapons that can knock out US satellites.

Iran and North Korea have also developed jamming systems that can mess with US equipment. It's not a total free-for-all: since the 1960s, international law has prohibited countries from putting weapons of mass destruction in space, or claiming territory or mounting weapons on the moon or other celestial bodies. Still, the new Space Force is another step in the creeping – and likely inexorable – militarization of the final frontier.

Commercial exploitation: But space isn't just about military competition, it's also a (quite literally endless) frontier of private sector commercial opportunity. Over the past decade, companies funded by Silicon Valley billionaires have massively reduced the cost of putting payloads into orbit. That's fueling interest in the commercial possibilities of new industries like space tourism or asteroid mining – and even one day colonizing Mars.

China's getting in on the action, too. In 2014, President Xi Jinping opened up the Chinese space market to private investment, sparking a startup boom. In coming decades, as new private sector players prepare to fan out across the solar system, it will further complicate governments' geopolitical calculations in space. For example, some critics already worry that US efforts intended to promote the private space industry, like a 2015 law that allows companies to exploit "space resources" like mineral-rich asteroids, could undermine the long-standing norm of space as a global commons, and make it harder for governments to address common challenges, like managing orbital debris.

The bottom line: Buckle up, because the geopolitics of space are only going to get more complicated.

A sector that's rapidly expanding, domotics - domus (home) plus robotics - are smart houses that manage temperature and lighting to minimize wasted electricity. For example, smart thermostats sense your presence and set the temperature according to your needs, saving 20% a year on heating bills. Watch this episode of Eni's Energy Shot series to learn how domotics save money and increase a home's value.

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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Listen: In a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer, Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert assesses the current state of the climate crisis and answers a simple question: how screwed are we? And as the climate continues to warm at a record pace, she unpacks some of the more extreme climate solutions that some increasingly desperate nations are starting to consider. Such measures may sound like stuff of science fiction (see: injecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere or shooting millions of tiny orbital mirrors into outer space) as times become more desperate, their appeal is growing. Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

China is making its neighbors nervous these days. Chinese fighter jets are screaming into Taiwan's airspace. Hundreds of armed Chinese "fishing boats" are plying the disputed waters of the South China Sea. And Beijing is slashing imports from some trading partners because of disputes over political issues.

To push back against this increasingly aggressive behavior, regional powers Japan, India, and Australia, together with the US, are boosting cooperation via a 17-year-old grouping called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply "The Quad." But how effectively can these four countries really work together to counter China? Eurasia Group's Peter Mumford discusses the Quad's future.

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Want to tackle climate change? If so you'll have to reach out to China, which is currently responsible for over a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. Beijing will certainly take your call, as climate is a huge priority for President Xi Jinping.

Xi has promised that China will go "net zero" — meaning its carbon emissions will be offset by equal amounts of either natural or tech-driven carbon capture — by 2060. Is a decade later than most of the top 10 polluting countries fast enough for the rest of the world? It is for the Chinese, who want to help but have their own ideas about how.

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When will it be safe for the world's children to be vaccinated against COVID-19? The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, says that vaccines are being tested in children down to the age of six or even lower, and promises that data on children will be shared as soon as it's available. She also notes that there are not enough studies on transmission in schools, and the WHO has advised governments to prioritize schools "over other things like shopping malls or cinema halls or pubs." Dr. Swaminathan spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 9. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Over the past half century, climate change has had an immense impact on the farmers who produce the food we eat. A new study by Cornell University shows that global warming has knocked 21 percent off of global agriculture productivity growth since 1965, equivalent to seven years of normal growth if humans had not polluted the planet. But not all countries have been affected in the same say. Farmers in warmer parts of the world have been hit hard as conditions grow more arid, but sub-polar regions in Canada or Siberia are now actually better for agriculture because they are not as cold as they used to be. Here we take a look at how climate has affected farming productivity growth around the world.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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Can "the Quad" constrain China?

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